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I (Don’t) Sea: On Ocean Invisibilities


I’m presently en route to what promises to be a truly inspiring week at UC-Irvine, where Liz DeLoughrey and Lisa Paravisini-Gebertis are leading a week-long interdisciplinary seminar of ocean theorists to workshop works-in-progress on how we think of, with, on, and about the ocean as well as its human and more-than-human ecologies. In the spirit of things, I’m writing this blog post somewhere over the Atlantic, to be uploaded when I land in Newark (or later, in Irvine, if the layover is rushed).

Reading through some of the pre-circulated drafts, it appears that a central theme likely to emerge this week will be questions of ocean (in)visibility. Sight has long had a privileged role in structuring how we understand our planet and its processes, but vision of marine space is frequently confounded by the ocean’s volume as well as its darkness. Even as knowledge of earth systems and global economic flows lead us to understand the concept of a world ocean, and even as the sea remains a productive platform for envisioning futures (both of which are themes explored in a number of the working papers and supplementary articles that I’ve just been reading), the sea remains a difficult place for us to visualise in its wholeness. I’m only half way through the workshop papers, but I think it’s fair to say, at this point, that each of the contributors either writes directly about or attempts to confront the problems inherent in conceiving of the ocean as a space of vision (in every sense of the word).

This is not to say that there’s no role for vision when ‘looking’ at the ocean. As I discussed a while back on this blog, visual sensing of perturbations in the ocean’s surface can be used for mapping the seabed and its features. Indeed, just last week, it was reported that hitherto unknown ocean sounds could also be ‘seen’ through remote sensing. Just as Kim Peters and I (and Liz, building on Caribbean literature, and others too numerous to mention) have argued that the ocean is not a space with no history but rather one with a different history, the ocean is not a space of no visibility but a space of different visibility. Nonetheless, this ocean visibility is always paired with a degree of ocean invisibility. Indeed, it is likely this mix that makes the ocean such a powerful space of the sublime, and it is likely because of this that the ocean is such a meaningful platform for envisioning post-terrestrial (or post-anthropocene) futures [again, I’m not claiming to be the only person saying this; shout-outs here to Stefan Helmreich (who’ll also be at Irvine), Stacy Alaimo, Jessie Lehman, etc.]

It was in this context that I was struck when, buried deep beneath the Brexit coverage, last week the New York Times published a story about the controversy surrounding the ‘I Sea’ app. ‘I Sea’ is (or was, or will be, or was said to be…depending on who’s telling the truth) an app that enabled individuals to scan portions of the ocean looking for migrant vessels. When an ‘I Sea’ user flagged a likely target, an immediate notification was to be sent to the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station so that MOAS could launch a rescue mission. In theory, this was a brilliant experiment in humanitarian crowd-sourcing (albeit a risky one, given that the data could also be used to tip off coast guards and anti-immigrant vigilantes). In practice, however, the app was useless because, although purporting to feed real-time satellite imagery, it actually showed a static stock image of the ocean overlaid with real-time weather data to give an illusion of immediacy.

Aside from ongoing questions about who knew about the app’s uselessness and who was to blame, I find the whole episode thought provoking because it speaks to 1) the idea that we can ‘know’ what’s going on at sea by looking just a bit harder and 2) the assumption that visual evidence will lead to action. Regarding the first point, as I’m writing this I’m peering out the window at the seas south of Greenland, looking for…..what? An iceberg, a ship, the ice edge (something that preoccupies a lot of my thoughts and writing these days), a bit of coastline that I can use to determine my precise location, a poetic ‘oceanic feeling’? My thoughts drift from the ocean beneath me to Melville, who begins Moby Dick by writing about the Manhattanites who gather at The Battery to gaze at the ocean, never really sure what they’re looking at, or what they’re looking for (to find themselves? to escape themselves?), but who gaze nonetheless. Perhaps ‘I Sea’ played upon a similar desire, and perhaps our frustration with its nonfunctionality is both tempered and intensified by the way in which realisation of the app’s futility is paired with realisation of the futility of the maritime gaze.

The episode also gives me pause to think of the faith that we have that acquisition of visual evidence will lead to positive action. Is the problem truly the ocean’s vastness, or is it that we know full well what is going on at sea (or at least we know enough of what is going on) but are simply unwilling or unable to mobilise appropriate actions. Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller’s work in Forensic Oceanography has aptly demonstrated that satellite tracking of refugee vessels does not necessarily lead to life-saving intervention. Or, to take this point home, 52 percent of people in Britain, faced with the realities of an interconnected world, chose to turn their backs rather than embrace the opportunities that come from shared responsibilities.

These thoughts and others fill my head as I cross the seas to Irvine (and I need to stop writing and start reading the remainder of pre-submissions). I’m looking forward to an intense but enjoyable week exploring these and other issues with a terrific community of anthropologists, artists, geographers, historians, and literary scholars.



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